Language police: check your privilege and priorities

April 2, 2014

Earlier this year published an article titled “15 signs you’re a word nerd”. Alongside a couple of unobjectionable items (You love to read; You know the difference between “e.g.” and “i.e.”) and some that didn’t apply to me (You have at least three word games on your phone) were several that I got stuck on:

Typos and abbreviations in texts drive you a little crazy.

No, not even a little. There are more than enough things in the world to be bothered by without getting worked up over trivial mistakes and conventional shortcuts in phone messages. (I assume texts here is short for text messages: obviously the “good” kind of abbreviation…)

It’s a question of register. How formally correct our language is, or needs to be, depends on context. Text messages seldom require standard English to be fully observed, and most people who text me have no difficulty code-switching appropriately. Nor do I have any difficulty coping with this informal variety of the language. Next!

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Ghost storties [sic] of Henry James

March 26, 2014

This was on my shelf a while before I spotted the intruder:

Ghost storties (sic) of Henry James - Wordsworth Editions, typo on spine

I love a good ghost storty, and since it’s Henry James I don’t expect these will be very gorty. The book was published by Wordsworth Editions in 2001: not their crowning glorty.

Imagine their fright, though, when they finally spotted it. I’ll be glad if there’s anything in the book as scary as that.

‘Not a word’ prolly ain’t an argument anyways

February 4, 2014

A trio of tweets to introduce the topic:

My question about dictionaries was paired with this snapshot of the @nixicon Twitter account, about which more below:

Barack Obama use of madder - young people and dictionaries

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Sigh language

April 15, 2013

From io9 last week, “Every language needs its, like, filler words”:

io9 - American Sigh Language typo

“Sigh language” is a lovely idea; as typos go it is unusually appealing. Kelly (@potterarchy) on Twitter suggested in jest that io9 may have been referring to this “sigh-off” between actors on the UK TV show Never Mind the Buzzcocks:

A sigh language isn’t even very far-fetched, given that some languages have channels of communication that use whistling and humming. Think of the subtle shades of exasperation, tedium, relief, exhaustion and wistful longing that can be conveyed with a well-shaped sigh.

It seems the sort of thing a science fiction writer might already have described – with neighbouring populations conversing through sniffs, yawns, gurgles, and what have you – but nothing springs to mind.


Would of, could of, might of, must of

October 23, 2012

When we say would have, could have, should have, must have, might have, may have and ought to have, we often put some stress on the modal auxiliary and none on the have. We may show this in writing by abbreviating to could’ve, must’ve, etc. (Would can contract further by merging with the subject: We would have → We’d’ve.)

Unstressed ’ve is phonetically identical (/əv/) to unstressed of: hence the widespread misspellings would of, could of, should of, must of, might of, may of, and ought to of. Negative forms also appear: shouldn’t of, mightn’t of, etc. This explanation – that misanalysis of the notorious schwa lies behind the error – has general support among linguists.

The mistake dates to at least 1837, according to the OED, so it has probably been infuriating pedants for almost 200 years. Common words spelt incorrectly provoke particular ire, sometimes accompanied by aspersions cast on the writer’s intelligence, fitness for society, degree of evolution, and so on. But there’s no need for any of that.

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Book review: Punctuation..?

September 18, 2012

User design, a book design company based in the UK, kindly sent me a copy of their recently reissued book on punctuation, simply titled Punctuation..? Or not so simply: shouldn’t those two full stops be a three-dot ellipsis? Maybe it was intended to get editors talking.

More booklet than book, Punctuation..? consists of 35 illustrated pages aimed at a “wide age range (young to ageing) and intelligence (emerging to expert)”. It’s an attractive pamphlet that covers the usual punctuation marks – comma, dashes and co. – and some less familiar ones, such as guillemets [« »], interpunct [·], and pilcrow [¶].

The book’s advice is basic and broadly helpful. General readers won’t mind its traditional definition of a noun as “a word used as the name of a person, place or thing”, though to me this everyday description is dated and deficient. The prose sometimes jars: “As with many rules, there is always an exception”. Well, which is it?

There are more serious shortcomings. Comma splices are not always errors, but they oughtn’t to appear in a book on punctuation without comment; this one has a few. It says em and en dashes are “longer than the hyphen (-) which is not a dash”, which implies some hyphens are dashes. This construction recurs. (See my post on that vs. which.)

For clarity, some words should be in inverted commas or italics (“the word to”), and some shouldn’t (“What about ‘rent’?”). “[D]iscreetly indented paragraphs” is probably meant to be discretely. Semicolons are not the mark “least used in many modern books” – what about pilcrows and interpuncts? – and there’s more semicolon trouble in this example of exclamation mark use:

Ah! you are wrong, once she sees me cleaned up; washed and shaved, she will find me irresistible!

It suggests that when she is washed and shaved, she will find the speaker irresistible. The first comma is also problematic. The same page says exclamation marks are used to “demonstrate hope or regret”, as in “I hope Betty can come!” No: the word hope does that. Elsewhere, words are repeated (“ready to to feed”), omitted (“at end of this sentence”), and questionably hyphenated (hook-up as a verb).

Punctuation..? has a sense of fun, particularly evident in the sometimes witty sketches that enliven the book’s already-pleasant appearance. Their style may be seen in the image below. The tone is light and friendly, some of the marks are well described, and there is welcome coverage of technical marks, such as prime symbols, which would often be overlooked in a work of this type.

Unfortunately, these virtues are overshadowed by the slip-ups in grammar, style, spelling, punctuation, and fact. Other reviewers have been less critical, but I don’t know if they failed to spot the problems that bothered me, or just didn’t care. Punctuation..? is a nice idea for a book, but it needs and deserves  more work and better editing.

Subjected to unreasonable laughter

September 5, 2011

From the Sligo Times, date unknown:

In many parts of Co. Sligo hares are now practically unknown because of the unreasonable laughter to which they have been subjected in recent years.

The Sligo Times was published from 1909–1914. I haven’t seen this superb typo in its original context, but I’d like to think it’s genuine. It appears in A Steroid Hit the Earth, an amusing misprint-o-rama by Martin Toseland.

Who’d have guessed hares were so sensitive to mockery?